Last summer, flying back from Frankfurt, I happened to look up at an overhead screen while trying to learn my lines in Twelfth Night, and for a second I thought I saw myself in a promotional video for Singapore Airlines, among a crowd at JFK two weeks earlier. They couldn’t possibly have produced such a thing so fast, could they? But there was the distressed-leather jacket, the mirrored sunglasses, the gray hair—silver, let’s call it—and the Profile: ah, still a handsome devil. (I was on my way to see a twenty-eight-year-old German woman I’d met in New York, who said if I came over she’d figure out something to tell her boyfriend.) Just this afternoon I told an old friend—someone I’ve known for years, at any rate—that this was the moment I knew I had to quit acting. I’d studied myself on tape however many hundreds of times, I said, and never had I been so convincing: Who wouldn’t cast this guy as the old lech on his last go-round? But of course what bullshit really, that such and such a moment was your little this-was-the-moment-when moment. At the time, I thought it was just a weird thing, which is all it was, and now let’s get on with the show.
My father was a film editor—to begin this at the beginning—who’d worked with Stanley Donen and William Wyler, and I really was a handsome devil when I was in my twenties; I might have made it as a B-list male ingenue, saved my money, and lived on a beach the rest of my life. But when I was thirteen, my parents took me on a trip to the East Coast, where we saw Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet on Broadway, and maybe that was my moment-when moment. My father, to his credit, or not, never tried to talk me out of moving to New York; he even paid for my first year at the Circle in the Square Theatre School. I put in my time as Mortimer Brewster and Professor Harold Hill back in the days when dinner theaters were a thing, and I played Bernardos and Franciscos at this or that Shakespeare festival. One summer I was so broke I took the bus for Massachusetts to work as an “interpreter” at Plimoth Plantation, speaking Pilgrimese (“How are you faring this day?”) and affecting puzzlement when tourists—we were to refer to them as “strange visitors”—tried to get me to break character. I’m proud to say that I never appeared in The Fantasticks, either on the road or down on Sullivan Street, though I took TV work when I could get it: a blind date in an episode of Kate & Allie, and a corrupt lawyer in Law & Order. I was understudy to the guy who played A Gent when they brought back The Cradle Will Rock; he never missed a night, so I never got to do that first-act number with Patti LuPone. Fifteen years ago, all this amounted to enough of a résumé to get a job at a suny branch, teaching what they were pleased to call theater arts; I took the train up to Westchester three mornings a week, a reverse commute among people who seemed to be domestic workers.
Kenny Donnelly was at Circle in the Square at the same time as me, and he always tried to throw work my way. You might have called him a friend too. Last spring I was picking up extra money doing radio commercials while he was finishing a five-month run at Cherry Lane with his adaptation of The London Merchant; or, the History of George Barnwell: sort of a Sweeney Todd meets Rocky Horror, with Rick Calloway—who’d been his partner, off and on, for years—as Sarah Millwood. Kenny had invited me to audition for the murdered uncle, but I’d thought the thing would close in two days. He comped me for one of the final performances—he was right; the uncle was a great part—and took me out for drinks after. Would I be interested in coming up to Vermont in July? The community theater he’d organized was doing Twelfth Night this year, and he needed a couple of professionals to glue it together. Two months in Arcadia: he’d put me up, feed me, and I could have my choice of Orsino or Feste; he’d take whichever I didn’t want, and we’d let the amateurs have fun with Malvolio and Sir Andrew and Sir Toby. Barbara Antonelli—I’d worked with Barbara, yes?—was coming up to do Maria, and a Shakespeare professor from the University of Vermont wanted to try Malvolio. For Viola he planned to cast a drama teacher from the local high school; she had a vaguely look-alike brother who was willing to give Sebastian a whirl, although he’d never acted before. And he knew a college girl, a drama major whose father was a lawyer in town, who might be right for Olivia. A good little actress, he thought, quite apart from the fact that the father was on his board.
“I might be getting a little old for Orsino,” I said.
“And I’m not?” Kenny said. “Aren’t you sweet. Actually, I sort of like the idea of an Orsino who’s past his sell-by date. But listen, what you will. As the man says.”
I’d booked my trip to Germany for mid-June, but if I made all my connections, I could get to Vermont the day before rehearsals started. Pathetic as it seems, I took the thing seriously and quit getting high in the evenings. I watched Ben Kingsley in the Trevor Nunn film, and listened to Paul Scofield on the old Caedmon recording. We all know Shakespeare criticism is a rabbit hole, but I bought Marjorie Garber’s book, and I found her Twelfth Night chapter helpful, if less so than A. C. Bradley’s “Feste the Jester,” written back in 1929. And I came upon this, from good old Granville-Barker in 1912: “Feste, I feel, is not a young man . . . There runs through all he says and does that vein of irony by which we may so often mark one of life’s self-acknowledged failures. We gather that in those days, for a man of parts without character and with more wit than sense, there was a kindly refuge from the world’s struggle as an allowed fool. Nowadays we no longer put them in livery.”
The only way I could memorize anymore was to read my scenes aloud, over and over, and I recorded myself so I could listen when I was running or doing errands. The day before I left for Europe, I was walking through Central Park, yelling along with myself, when I came upon the statue of Hans Christian Andersen, that kindly giant pedophile in bronze, with his open storybook on one knee and a real live little girl on the other, being photographed by her parents: “Fie, thou dishonest Satan!” The daddy picked his daughter up, as I might have picked up a daughter of mine. Even on the plane back from Frankfurt, and then on the train up to Vermont, I kept force-feeding myself Feste, moving my lips as I read and listened. My part of death, no one so true did share it!
I stepped out onto the platform in Montpelier as the sun was going down on what must have been a hot day; the last time I’d felt the open air I’d been in Europe. Kenny lifted my suitcases into the trunk of his Saab and drove me through countryside that looked like Germany without the castles. (My little German adventure is a whole other story; but you’ve seen The Blue Angel.) On the way, we passed an Adopt-A-Highway sign with the name of his theater. Kenny told me he’d bought up here when it was still affordable; David Mamet had a house a couple of towns away. “Let it be recorded,” he said, “that I loathed the man before he turned Republican. You hungry? I’m a little peckish. Let’s go drop in on the folklife.”
We stopped at a bar in his town; the kitchen was closed, but the owner, whom Kenny introduced as Mike, went back and started the fry-o-lator to cook us his special wings, while we drank Bud and watched the last innings of a ball game. Kenny got into a discussion with Mike about the Red Sox pitcher (“They’re sitting fastball, for Christ’s sake—why is he not going to his change?”) and bought a round for everybody when the Sox won in the bottom of the ninth.
His house, a big old Vermont cape framed by maple trees, sat on a knoll, up a winding dirt drive. “Hell in the wintertime,” he said. He helped me carry my bags to his guest cottage, which had once been the henhouse and still had a wooden cutout of a rooster on the door, with a hand-lettered sign that read NO TEASING. “Aren’t you flagrant,” I said.
“This is only for my very special guests,” he said. “The iron law of country life—don’t shit where you sleep.”
After he’d made sure the bathroom had soap and sniffed the towels for freshness, we walked up to the top of his hill and looked down at the lights in his six-over-six windows. You could smell the hay that had just been cut in his fields. He pointed up, and what do you know: the Milky Way, with its million million stars. “They used to call that the Pathway of the Secret People,” Kenny said.
“Who called it that?” I said.